Curtains for Ceja

As a teen, Jose Ceja killed two people and was sentenced to die. He spent 23 years on death row as a model prisoner, and then his sentencing judge admitted he'd made a mistake. But the state of Arizona killed him anyway.

This is what Jose Jesus Ceja did to Linda and Randy Leon. I wasn't there.
On June 30, 1974, 18-year-old Ceja went to the Leons' home, planning to steal 70 pounds of pot. He didn't think they'd be at home. When he got there, he found Linda, 22, alone. They struggled in the living room, and he used a .22 handgun to shoot her twice in the chest. Then he dragged her into a bedroom and shot her four times in the head, using a pillow to muffle the gunshots.

Ceja's gun was empty when he heard Randy Leon, 24, pull up to the house in his car. Knowing that Randy kept a gun in his den, Ceja went and found it. When Randy entered the house, Ceja shot him once in the chest, once in the back, once in the shoulder and once in the arm.

Ceja was arrested by Eloy Ysasi, a Phoenix homicide detective. Ysasi had some sympathy for Ceja. The detective had worked on nearly 180 homicides--when he retired the following year, his total would be 181--and had come to recognize the signs that differentiate premeditated murders from random, lethal explosions of violence. And, he believed, "The murders of Randy and Linda Leon were the result of a panicked act by a young, immature person."

This was probably a fair description of Ceja. Three years too young to drink alcohol legally, he was drinking beer, smoking pot and sniffing paint. He came from a background of severe poverty. His education had stopped at eighth grade. As a child, he had been abused by his stepfather. He had been depressed since his wife had suffered a miscarriage three months before he killed Linda and Randy Leon.

He had no prior history of violence, and in fact, his record showed only one juvenile referral--for joy-riding.

Of the many murders Ysasi had dealt with, this one didn't stand out. Ysasi believed Ceja should be charged with second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He wasn't. He was charged with and convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to death. But--though no one could have known it at the time--before his death sentence, he would serve a life sentence.

Contrary to popular belief, you don't get the death sentence just for murdering someone. The murder has to be "especially heinous, cruel or depraved."

The sentencing court decided that Ceja's crime met these criteria because it was found that he had kicked Randy Leon in the face after killing him. This "finding" seems to have been based on the sole fact that Randy Leon's face was marked, and that Eloy Ysasi recalled Ceja saying that he had kicked him. Ysasi hadn't recorded it in his notes, and had just mentioned it at the preliminary hearing. Ceja denied ever having said it. No evidence to support it was presented in testimony either during the trial or the sentencing hearing. Dr. Heinz Karnitschnig, the county medical examiner who performed autopsies on Ceja's victims, stated that there was no postmortem abuse of either body. He also opined that the abrasions on Randy Leon's face were "consistent with a fall to the floor."

As I prepare to watch him die, I imagine being Jose Ceja.
It's not hard to imagine. A panicked act by a young, immature person. In 1984, when I was 18, that would have been a fair description of me. That winter, I was broke and hungry and on the verge of being kicked out of the place where I lived.

One bone-chilling morning, I hadn't eaten and didn't know how I was going to eat that day. I went out, taking with me a screwdriver with a weighted handle. The tool barely fit into the inside pocket of my jacket. I went inside a quiet old bookstore and pretended to look at the books. The owner, an elderly man, looked at me suspiciously, but he wasn't hostile. He sat behind a desk with a heater beside him, and read a newspaper. For more than an hour, I skulked behind shelves. I couldn't see a cash register. A customer came in and bought some books, and I saw where the money was kept--in a desk drawer. When the customer left, I planned what I was going to do--smash the man's head with the screwdriver handle, pocket the money from the drawer and get out of there. I'd toss the screwdriver in the nearby river as I walked home. Business was so slow at his store, there was a good chance that I'd be able to do it and leave without anyone seeing me.

It didn't happen, though it nearly did. I walked toward the old guy, my hand inside my jacket, holding the screwdriver. He had no idea what was about to happen to him--he just thought I was leaving his store. "Bye," he said. And his voice panicked me, and instead of hitting him on the head, I did what he thought I was going to do: I walked out of his store.

I walked down to the river and dropped the screwdriver into the water.
It wasn't my conscience that saved him, though I'd like to believe that it was. The truth is, I chickened out.

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